Rod Hightower: Build, Volunteer, Fly

An interview with the President and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Rod Hightower in the Boeing PT-17 Stearman he restored. Jim Koepnick

The president and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association talked to A&S Editor Linda Shiner recently about the challenges to private pilots in the United States, his Stearman restoration, and what George Lucas thinks of Oshkosh. 

Air & Space: EAA is an organization with a famous heritage. Most aviation enthusiasts know that Paul Poberezny founded it and that his son Tom ran it for years. What does it mean to have somebody new at the helm? 

Hightower: It’s a huge privilege to lead the world’s most dynamic aviation organization. I still can’t believe that they picked me. It’s my job as the steward of the organization to not only carry on the culture, tradition, and values of the EAA but also to make it relevant to today’s aviation constituents and today’s aviation marketplace—and to continue the mission that Paul Poberezny started in 1953.  That mission will never change: to grow participation in aviation by inspiring people to fly, to build, to restore, to volunteer, to reach out to their community in support of aviation. 

What does it mean to the U.S. general aviation economy that the Federal Aviation Administration certificated 941 amateur-built aircraft last year? 

I think what that represents is amateur building is an unbeatable combination of value in terms of price and performance. That number speaks to the desire that people have to innovate and to have things just they way they want them for the purposes they want to use airplanes for. An entire industry supports amateur-built aircraft, and it’s doing quite well during a very difficult recession.

Have you had any thoughts about what private aviation means to the country aside from the economic contribution it makes to small businesses?

You have to think about the contribution of aviation in human terms. Aviation is used in so many ways that the general public is unaware of—or at least under-aware of. General aviation is used to transport a tremendous number of patients with special medical needs, whether it’s helicopters for emergency medical services or fixed-wing aircraft on missions to bring cancer patients to their treatment in a way that’s more timely and comfortable than they could achieve on an airline. The other uses that have a significant impact in human terms are the transport of blood samples from testing labs for rapid evaluation.

Part of the EAA’s vision is to increase “the pathways to participation” for aviation enthusiasts. How is EAA doing that?

If you’re a young person, we have a wonderful program, the world’s largest aviation outreach program called Young Eagles. The Young Eagles program turns 20 this July 2012. We’ve flown 1.6 million young people between the ages of 8 and 17. About 30 percent of those are female. The oldest Young Eagle is now 36 years old. Of all the U.S. pilots below the age of 36, 7.3 percent of that entire pilot population are former EAA Young Eagles.

The female pilot population has been impacted by Young Eagles in a very effective and positive way. Across the pilot population of the United States, about 600,000 pilots, six percent are female. Of the 18,800 certificated pilots that are former Young Eagles, over nine percent are female.

So that’s a pathway for the young crowd.  What about the 35-and-over demographic?

We have something called Eagle Flight.  We had a lot of fun naming this one. We had a lot of suggestions from the membership. What are we going to call this flight for adults? Old Eagles? Bald Eagles? But it’s called Eagle Flight and it’s for folks above the age of 18. It’s an early flight experience with a pathway to certification, and the first flight will take place at this year’s 2012 AirVenture out at show center.

We’re finding out some things about that demographic.  In that group, those who hold the dream of flight have two characteristics: the desire to fly is long held, and now they have the capability to fly, whether that’s time, or money, or both.  Always wanted to, now can. Those people certificated with 18 months often are buying airplanes within 24 months—an amazing dynamic in that demographic. If you take a look at the 15,000 private pilots certificated every year, there’s a surprising and growing number of those above the age of 35.

What was your very first experience at AirVenture?

My first year was 1988. It was a terrific year for me. It was my first AirVenture and it was the year I got married.  And it was the year that I bought my Stearman project. It was a basket case. That one has to fit in the category of things I’ll never do again.

George Lucas [who recently produced the feature film Red Tails about the Tuskegee Airmen] attended AirVenture for the first time last year, and I asked him over lunch for his impression. He said, ‘Rod I had no idea of the scope and scale of this place.’ He said he was blown away. So for the rest of my life, I’m going to be telling people that George Lucas was blown away by his experience at AirVenture. Those were his words.

How long did it take to restore your Stearman?

It sat unattended for a little while—a couple of years. And the restoration got underway in earnest in 1990. So seven and a half years. It made its first flight in July of 1996. And it’s been a fabulous journey for our entire family. Some of our children have grown up around that airplane as it was being restored.

[A restoration project] teaches you a lot about the value of money and about the network of aviators who come to help you in such a complex project and restoring something from literally a pile of parts.

How did EAA help in the restoration?

I lived in Ohio for awhile and when the project was starting, I joined an EAA chapter. And the chapter rallied around and helped me understand the skills and find the resources I needed to help me complete the restoration. The skills in the membership were outstanding: whether it was welding, painting, machine-tool work, or stitching fabric. So the network of aviators who helped pull that together in the EAA community educated me. I’d never restored an airplane before, and their expertise was invaluable.

The type-club involvement, the Stearman Restorer’s Association, with specialized knowledge about Stearmans, helped me find resources among the network of Stearman owners. So the combination of EAA and the Stearman Restorer’s Association was just that magical combination of a large organization with a 930-chapter network across the United States with passionate members who could help you with the skills you need, then a special type club who could help you with the unique needs of a specific airplane, a Stearman in my case. 

There’s something new at AirVenture that you’re calling “eVenture.” What’s that all about?

The first year we had electric aircraft was 2010. And I think electric aircraft are going to be important. Electric aircraft offer a very economical way to fly for relatively short distances, so it could be very well suited for the training environment. It’s very eco-friendly. Getting away from petroleum-based fuels is always a good thing.  It’s also very environmentally friendly in terms of noise impact. It’s very quiet. So there are a lot of very innovative things happening with e-flight, and I think you’re going to see more and more of it, and for certain applications, it makes a lot of sense.  Battery technology is going to be the limiting factor there.

Is it one of the most promising technologies in making the transition away from leaded avgas to a different kind of propulsion?

I think some of the technologies enabling electric flight are limited right now. But in time, you’ll see more capability, just as we’ve seen throughout the history of aviation. There was a day when airplanes didn’t fly very far and didn’t fly very high and didn’t stay in the air very long, but look what’s happened now. Over time, you’ll see the technology improve.  For short distance flying and applications like motor gliders, you see a wonderful application for electric propulsion.

What other advances might be leading the way from leaded fuel?

Currently there is no drop-in replacement for 100-octane low-lead avgas for the general aviation fleet. The technologies being studied by independent fuel producers are very promising, and I’m very optimistic that we will find the right solution moving forward, but it will not be an exact one-for-one replacement. Nothing manages detonation and pre-ignition better than lead. Some of the compounds that do help manage detonation better than lead produce more toxicity than lead itself does. So it’s going to be a very significant scientific challenge to get this right so that it will be useful for the entire fleet.

Some have suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency impose a timeline for the phasing out of leaded gas. What’s the danger for pilots flying now, if the suit is successful?

A timeline would be devastating to aviation. It would compromise safety because you might find people pushing technology before it’s adequately tested. Managing the technology and the science of creating a fuel for the entire fleet from high-compression, high-power to low-compression, moderated-power engines is going to demand careful study, careful formulation, and lots of testing in the real-world environment. And that needs to be heavily governed and heavily regulated to insure safety. Imposing a timeline, I think, could lead to dangerous practices.

What threats are private pilots facing and how does the EAA help them?

The number-one threat that all of aviation has to guard against are user fees. I have a personal experience flying and operating an airplane in Europe, when I lived abroad on an ex-pat assignment. And user fees are very prevalent in Europe.  If user fees come to this country, they will reduce safety and significantly curtail the economic opportunity that aviation enjoys today.

We address user fees by fighting additional fees throught the regulatory agencies such as the FAA; we leverage our strengths and relationships with the FAA to help craft the best rule-making possible, always with the mission of enhancing safety. We also leverage releationships in the legislative process. That legislative process is really critical; that’s where the battle over user fees will be won or lost. We’ve engaged a very powerful and capable aviation caucus that has grown to be one of the largest caucuses in the House. And that particular capability will be there for all of us in aviation to ensure that user fees never come to this country.

Can you explain how you believe user fees would impact safety?

If you have user fees for air traffic control services, such as filing flight plans and getting weather briefings, pilots will find a way to avoid those fees. Under certain types of flights, you can avoid using some of those services. Well, we really don’t want that. If you want to enhance safety in aviation, we want to encourage aviators to use those services.

User fees come in other forms as well: landing fees at airports. If you want to enjoy flying as a recreation, but every airport you land at has a series of user fees, you’ll stop going to those airports. And if it gets too expensive, it will curtail recreational flying.

One other thing I’d mention is what people refer to as the BARR fight: The Block Aircraft Registration program, where you can block your N-number, your aircraft registration number, from being visible, reviewed, and tracked by anybody in the world, through access to an internet connection. We, along with other industry organizations led by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aircraft Association, successfully filed a lawsuit to reinstate the BARR program.  The FAA had decided unilaterally to disband it. And what they would have done was give aviators less privacy rights than the average citizen because you could track aircraft registration movement anywhere in the world. The industry was successful in preserving the pilots’ rights to privacy, and I would call that a significant win for aviation.

I always tell people that if you’re an aviator, there are always two membership cards you need in your wallet.  You need an AOPA membership to protect your freedoms to fly and you want the EAA card in your wallet to inspire and create the next generation of aviators.

What else would you like people to know about EAA and AirVenture?

When we had the tragic accident at Reno last year, it changed the public perception about large aviation events. Every one paid attention to the accident. It was a landmark event in aviation. But it’s very important to remember a couple of things. If you look at the statistics, it had been more than 60 years, until the accident last year at Reno, that a spectator was killed at an airshow or at an air racing event. That was an air racing event; we have still not had a spectator killed at an airshow in the past 60 years. The other part that’s important to remember is there was a very extensive review done by the NTSB. The industry leaders of all of the major airshow and air racing events in the United States were called to testify before the NTSB. And that testimony showed that the safety practices at large aviation events went far and above regulatory requirements. That was recognized by the NTSB and the FAA. So I think that it was one of the truly tragic events but was also an example of where the best-in-class practices shared among the industry leaders have yielded positive results and a perfect safety record for 60 years.

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